Something had to change. These guys had come too far: Gunther Alzner from outside Vancouver, Dave Green from Calgary, Lars Johansson from Sweden, Frank Fehr from the tiny town of Winkler, Manitoba. They had shared beers and stories — and more beers, and more stories. And here they sat, at the first intermission of Friday’s game in New Jersey, their Washington Capitals — really, their Washington Capitals, because the jerseys they wore bore the names of their sons — in a flat funk.
So up from his front-row seat in a suite at Prudential Center came their leader, seeking a momentum shift. Mikhail Ovechkin is an immense man with a ruddy face. The father of the Capitals’ captain, Alex, Mikhail speaks little English. With this group, he didn’t have to. He grabbed a full bottle of Absolut vodka from the counter, spread out little plastic cups on a circular table, and poured. And poured. From Russia, with love.
Some swilled. Some sipped. Some winced. All smiled. And with that, the Capitals’ annual dads’ trip — this year featuring 17 fathers, three brothers , one family friend and one 86-year-old grandfather from Belarus — shifted gears. The Capitals had lost six straight games and trailed New Jersey, 1-0. And yet the box filled with laughter.
“This is just awesome,” said Jory Carrick, camera around his neck so he could hone in on his son Connor, a rookie defenseman. “I mean, look at these guys.”
It sounds, in a way, like a joke: A Chicago property manager, a Russian cop and a Toronto heat-and-air conditioning foreman walk into a hockey rink. But it’s not, and in this case, Carrick (from Chicago), Vladimir Orlov (from Novokuznetsk, Russia) and Garry Erskine (from Toronto) were joined by men from all corners of the hockey globe. Almost every year, these dates are circled on calendars from Europe to British Columbia, and it becomes a tale-telling, elbow-in-the-ribs buddies’ trip.
“That’s the first question my dad asks every year,” said defenseman Mike Green, son of Dave. “ ‘When’s the dads’ trip?’ ”
An arctic wind whipped across the tarmac Thursday afternoon at Dulles International Airport as the Capitals and their fathers prepared to board their charter flight. Dave Green, who worked 37 years for the city of Calgary overseeing lift stations and driving heavy trucks, limped up to the line, still hampered by the industrial accident that ruined his back 17 years ago. He approached Mikhail Ovechkin, happy to interrupt a cigarette break. In the frigid air, the two embraced.
“It’s funny, because I don’t speak a word of Russian, and he doesn’t speak much English,” Dave Green said. “But we know what each other are saying. He’s a great guy.”
Or, as Alex Ovechkin said, “Parents is parents. They say, ‘How’s Sasha?’” Ovechkin said, relating his own nickname. “ ‘Good. Mike?’ ‘Good. Let’s go smoke.’ ”
That morning, the fathers met at the Capitals’ Arlington training complex for the start of the two-game trip to New Jersey and Montreal. By this, the sixth such trip the Capitals have staged, there is a core group that wouldn’t miss it. So when Frank Fehr, father of forward Eric, saw Gunther Alzner, father of defenseman Karl, they each beamed. Brooks Laich’s father, Harold, John Erskine’s father, Garry, Marcus Johansson’s father, Lars — they can all share the stories from their past trips as they anticipate the next.
“It’s so funny just seeing them walking into the rink today, and everybody’s so fired up,” Karl Alzner said. “We walk in through the door, and I hadn’t even had a chance to introduce my dad to the other guys because he was already talking to them, getting breakfast. They’re all around the coffee maker just chugging coffee. And then it’s the Alberta guys chirping the Saskatchewan guys. It’s the Canadian guys chirping the American guys. What don’t they get out of it? They love it.”
Each of them has memories. The time the father of David Steckel, a longtime forward since traded away, appeared in the wee hours to sing karaoke, belting out, “G-L-O-R-I-A!”, an act caught on video and later showed to the entire team. The time they won a game in Boston, their 11th win in a row, and savored it by sipping beers with their sons in the locker room afterward before forging on to New York, an off day of sightseeing, and then the 12th straight win against the Rangers. The year Mike Green scored for the eighth consecutive game, breaking the record for defensemen, and Dave Green got to meet the man whose mark his son snapped.
“Bobby Orr?” Dave Green said. “Great guy.”
And there was the time late one night — or perhaps early one morning — in Florida when Lars Johansson turned to Anders Backstrom, father of center Nicklas, and said, “We should do anthem.” Before long, the pair was warbling Sweden’s “Du gamla, Du fria” (“Thou ancient, Thou free”), followed by other dads singing “The Star-Spangled Banner” and “O Canada.”
“I never laughed more and never had so much fun in all my life,” Lars Johansson said. “We were Canadians. We were U.S. We were Sweden. We were German.”
He smiled. But only a moment before, Lars had been talking about Marcus’s career, and how he got here — in position to sit, with a white Capitals jersey bearing No. 90 and the name Johansson across the back — with other men wearing corresponding sweaters. “Nothing can compare to this,” he said, and then he turned away. He coughed, and his eyes welled up. Thirty seconds passed.
“I’m sorry,” he said.
When the charter flight landed in Newark, the players and their fathers eased their way down an icy metal staircase to collect their luggage and load it onto a waiting bus. And when they did, Mikhail Ovechkin pulled Dave Green aside. “Smoke?” They lit up, smiled, and braced against the chill, happy as could be.
At 6:15 p.m. Thursday, the Capitals and their fathers began filtering in to a dining room on the bottom floor of the team’s suburban New Jersey hotel, shrimp cocktail and crabs’ legs on one table, turkey and chicken and wild mushroom ravioli at another and a carving station manned at the end.
During dinner, Alex Ovechkin clinked his silverware on a water glass three times, getting other veterans to join in. The call was for each of the three rookies to stand and give a speech, tell a joke, relate something about the weekend. Ninteen-year-old forward Tom Wilson went first and asked, “Why doesn’t a chicken wear any pants?”, before delivering the punch line, only slightly off-color. Defenseman Nate Schmidt talked about his father, Thomas, who took him drag racing at 5 years old.
And when it was Connor Carrick’s turn, he told how — on those long drives from his Illinois home to Detroit or Toronto, to some rink somewhere — Jory Carrick would add up what the trip might cost, from hotels to initiation fees for the tournament to food to gas. He then would divide that over Connor’s minutes per game — usually around 15 — and come up with a cost-benefit analysis. It wasn’t pretty.
“I don’t know if I’m worth more now,” Connor Carrick deadpanned, “or I was then.”
He got a chuckle and sat back down, next to his dad. And then there was another clink-clink-clink. Mikhail Grabovski rose from his chair.
“My grandpa wants to say something,” said the 29-year-old forward from Belarus. Next to him sat Alexander Grabovski, in coat and tie, wearing glasses. He was an engineer, involved in architecture, but he works to this day, at age 86, overseeing a few gyms. Mikhail is in his first year with the Capitals, and his father, Yury, wasn’t due to join the group until it reached Montreal. It was Mikhail’s idea to invite Alexander, his father’s father, who had supported him for so long and with such enthusiasm.
“It’s not a long story,” Mikhail said to the room, translating for his grandfather. “It’s just some nice words.”
Alexander Grabovski began speaking, and Mikhail — in all likelihood the quietest Capital — turned his words to his teammates, to the other dads. Alexander talked about the Capitals’ 4-3 loss to Pittsburgh the week before, a particularly disheartening part of this losing streak. Mikhail Grabovski, looking for all the world like he wanted his grandfather to wrap things up, grabbed a chair and leaned into it, but kept translating.
“He said it’s a great game,” Mikhail Grabovski said to the room. “He said if we play like that, he feels like the Stanley Cup, we’re going to win for sure.”
Eventually, Alexander Grabovski sat down. The room broke into applause. “For age 86, it was very impressive,” Alex Ovechkin said later. “He speak from his heart.”
At 10:45 a.m. Saturday, the lights dimmed in the visitors’ locker room at Bell Centre, and Adam Oates stood before rows of men, young and old, sitting on benches. Washington’s 2-1 loss to New Jersey had to be washed away, right here. The Capitals boasted a 7-2 record over the previous five dads’ trips. They had never been so directly exposed to the sharp horrors and dull pain of a seven-game losing streak. Oates, standing before fathers and sons, made his goals clear.
“Just for the dads,” Oates said. “Obviously, we’re in a big slide,” and he explained how, on back-to-back games, he would use the morning meeting to go over the good and the bad from the previous night, then use the afternoon meeting to discuss the specifics of attacking that night’s opponent.
“My goal after a meeting is to make sure the guys are energized,” Oates told the fathers. “I need them focused and energized for tonight.” And then he turned to those fathers’ sons. “We got to believe it will turn,” he said, and the clips flickered up on the screen.
This was a new development for the trip, because former coaches hadn’t allowed the fathers into the meetings. Tom and Keven Wilson stood in the back corner, together, a father in the room as his son’s job was evaluated. Oates nitpicked this or that, but always came back with a positive development, particularly for younger players. The fathers’ eyes never wavered from the screen.
“I’m a student of the game,” Jory Carrick said. “But there were things in there I wouldn’t have thought of, wouldn’t have seen.”
When the meeting broke up, Caps and dads alike clapped, ready to move beyond New Jersey and on to Montreal. And as they left the room, Keven Wilson began thanking Oates for everything, telling him how much Tom was enjoying the experience, when Oates stopped him.
“We have to find him more ice time,” Oates said of young Tom.
Keven Wilson worked in financial services for more than 30 years, mostly in Toronto, and raised a family of three hockey-playing boys. Tom, the middle child, went away at 16 to play major junior hockey for the Plymouth Whalers of the Ontario Hockey League, and now, before he is 20, is simultaneously one of the Capitals’ most promising prospects and a key part of this year’s team, a member of the fourth line who adds toughness to the lineup.
Oates turned to a laptop and called up Washington’s lone goal in New Jersey the night before, one scored by Jason Chimera when the Capitals were already down 2-0.
“Here’s what got us the goal,” Oates said, turning to Keven Wilson. And on the screen was Tom, a frozen image of him making a quick poke check near the opposing goal. He kept the puck alive for Washington. It cycled around, and Chimera eventually tipped it in.
“You’re running a business and you’re inviting outsiders to come in and shadow,” Keven Wilson said. “That’s always complicated. But this is amazing. And I appreciate the message. It helps them. It’s positive.”
Ten minutes before the Capitals were to take the ice Saturday night at Bell Centre, Ian Anderson, the man responsible for all of the logistics of any road trip, came into the suite and pulled aside Garry Erskine. Despite the shrimp cocktail and cheese plate, there was already tension. Seven losses in a row is seven losses in a row, whether the fathers are around or not.
Anderson told Erskine — whose son John has been with Washington for eight seasons — that he had to go downstairs. He would read the starting lineup to the team.
“My heart is pounding out of my chest,” Garry Erskine said. He is 59, a foreman for a heating company in Toronto. He wore a black baseball cap, and his son’s No. 4 jersey over his shirt. And when he walked into the locker room, the Capitals — suddenly unburdened by their losing streak — cheered.
“That let me do it,” Garry Erskine said. He never searched for his son in the room. He couldn’t, because he might have broken down, and John didn’t start that night. But he managed to read the names aloud. With that, the Capitals went out — on a national broadcast across a country, “Hockey Night in Canada,” not to mention in perhaps the most historic hockey city — to take on the Canadiens.
“I can’t believe where the Caps have taken this,” Erskine said. “It’s such a small thing, but it’s huge for me. I’ll never forget that as long as I live.”
In the suite, before the puck dropped, Keven Wilson turned around and bumped fists with Tony Volpatti, father of forward Aaron, and Kristoffer Backstrom, brother of Nicklas. Jory Carrick pulled out his camera. Mikhail Ovechkin, whose son was back in the lineup after a two-game absence, sat squarely in the front row. Nerves were obvious.
“I don’t think I’ll ever get over them,” Frank Fehr said.
And then, the Capitals provided a reason to get over them. Ovechkin scored one goal in the second, and the suite loosened up. Erskine scored his first goal on an odd play minutes later. The goals began flowing on the ice, and the drinks off them. With each goal in what became a 5-0 Capitals’ victory, the fathers of the men who scored them high-fived each other, bumped fists, smiled, yelled.
With five minutes left and the game in hand, the entire group headed to the locker room, through a tunnel along the glass, snapping pictures of the Stanley Cup banners from below. And when the final horn blew, and the home crowd booed the Canadiens, the Capitals strode into their own locker room and were greeted by their own fathers.
“We did it!” defenseman John Carlson yelled, sarcastically and truthfully. Each player bumped fists with a mish-mash of fathers and brothers. Brooks Laich turned up the stereo, then posed for a photo with his father, Harold, and the Ovechkins, Alex and Mikhail, a smiling, sweaty mess. Lars Johansson coached the dads up, and got them all to shout, “Hip! Hip! Hip! Caps!” before he danced an awkward, hilarious jig in the middle of the room.
Then the dads filed out, headed to the bus, then the charter. Once there, Oates left his seat at the front of the plane and walked back, shaking each of their hands. And in one of the least necessary gestures imaginable, he thanked them for coming.
“I wouldn’t miss it,” Dave Green said. “Would. Not. Miss it.”